It happened in Washington State, where a man in his 30s had just returned from visiting Wuhan, China. He started experiencing symptoms and sought help at a clinic.
Over the course of the last year, that one case has grown exponentially into 24 million confirmed in the U.S. alone.
At Providence Regional Medical Center just outside of Seattle, George Diaz was about to become the first doctor to care for a COVID-19 patient in the United States. He and his team had already been running disaster drills: anticipating the worst.
Remember, even though the official word out of China was that it was unclear if coronavirus was spreading from human to human, we were also seeing incredible and terrifying images of entire hospital systems being constructed.
Yes, we knew it was coming. But we couldn’t see it or feel its power. We couldn’t be convinced to hunker down and take cover.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked Diaz, “How worried were you? How sick did he actually become?”
Diaz replied, “Around the fifth day or so he started developing oxygen requirements. He became more short of breath. He said it was harder to breathe. And we did a chest X-ray. And we saw the development of pneumonia.”
He was discharged after two weeks. But by February 26, the U.S. reported only 15 cases.
And then President Trump tried to reassure the country. “The 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero,” he said.
At that time, Dr. Gupta asked the president, “This is spreading or it’s gonna spread maybe within communities. That’s the expectation.”
“It may,” Trump said.
“Does that expectation that worry you? Because that’s what worries the American people.”
Trump replied, “No, because we’re ready for it, we’re ready for it. We’re really prepared.”
We weren’t prepared. Not by a long shot. 15 did not go to zero. About a year later 15 went to more than 24 million cases, the worst in the entire world.
Make no mistake: this did not need to happen. We had met the enemy and it was us, starting with our faulty tests. Nancy Messionier with the CDC said, “It wasn’t working as expected.”
March 1st, the CDC had officially counted 32 confirmed cases in the U.S. But according to some estimates, there were already 28,000 cases or more around the country, a nearly 10,000 fold difference right out of the gate.
We had no warning signs before we saw the terrifying outbreaks in nursing homes and cases exploding in the northeast. Hospitals were overrun, short on even the basic personal protective equipment. But while healthcare workers were begging for more masks, many in the public refused to wear them.
By March 16th for the first time, nearly two months after the first patient was diagnosed, more of the country started to worry.
Trump said, “We’ve made the decision to further toughen the guidelines and blunt the infection now.”
But a theme started to emerge: personal liberty over protective stability.
We didn’t shut down early enough or long enough. One study found shutting down just two weeks earlier and we could have prevented 84% of deaths
Nearly every step of the way, science was trumped by rhetoric and politics, giving fuel to the worst and most dangerous theories.
Trump said, “I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside?”
By June, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “We are now having 40 plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around.”
It sounded apocalyptic at the time. But, since December, we’ve averaged more than 200,000 cases daily.
As the weather turned cold we came back indoors. Fatigue set in, and after months of not seeing friends and family at least seven million people traveled by air over the holidays.
And now, hospitals all across the country are buckling, similar to what New York saw in the spring.
Dr. Diaz said, “When you don’t have that unity across the country on a mission to reduce the impact of this pandemic, then it’s going to be haphazard.”
States like Vermont, or Dr. Diaz’s home state of Washington, that opened more cautiously and leaned in to basic science, have among the lowest death rates per capita in the country. But states like South Dakota, which openly flaunted science, never issuing mask mandates and letting people gather en masse have some of the highest rates of infection hospitalization and death per capita. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said, “Let me tell you, my people are happy. They’re happy because they’re free.”
This one-year mark comes at a time when the calendar has flipped another year and a new president is in charge. But this virus—it doesn’t care about anniversaries. It just cares about finding more and more hosts.
By February 13th, up to half a million people in the United States are expected to die and thousands more in the weeks to come. Most of them have not yet been exposed. Many of them maybe let their guard down, thinking this is all over. One year later, sadly, this is the worst it has ever been.
To date, more than 400,000 people have died from COVID in the U.S.